London (AFP) -
AstraZeneca said Thursday that its profits had doubled in 2020, as the World Health Organization approved the pharma giant's jab for over-65s and global immunisation efforts gained momentum.
Mass Covid-19 vaccination programmes are being ramped up in many countries -- according to an AFP tally, more than 155.7 million people in at least 91 countries had been vaccinated by 1000 GMT on Thursday.
But so far, the rollouts are being hampered by limited supplies and AstraZeneca's jab has been in the spotlight after a number of European countries refused to authorise it for the over-65s -- the demographic most vulnerable to Covid-19.
It was also at the centre of a diplomatic spat between the EU and Britain earlier this year over supply problems.
Nevertheless, the WHO backed AstraZeneca's coronavirus shot on Wednesday -- including for over-65s and in places were new virus variants are circulating.
The AstraZeneca shot forms the bulk of doses being rolled out around the world -- especially in poorer countries -- under the Covax programme.
'It is likely that the vaccine will be found to be efficacious in older persons. The trial data indicate that the vaccine is safe for this age group,' said WHO expert Alejandro Cravioti.
He said the WHO was awaiting more specific data on the vaccine's efficacy in over-65s, but that it 'would not be appropriate' to wait with 'thousands of people dying'.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the benefits of using the AstraZeneca shot would 'far outweigh' any risks even in nations with new variants.
On Thursday, AstraZeneca said its 2020 earnings had doubled, even without taking into account sales of its vaccine which was only approved for use at the end of last year.
'Despite the significant impact from the pandemic, we delivered double-digit revenue growth,' CEO Pascal Soriot said as the group announced net profits of $3.2 billion in 2020.
'The progress of the Covid-19 vaccine demonstrated what we can achieve.'
- 'False sense of security' -
But even as inoculation drives get under way across the globe, the WHO's Europe director Hans Kluge warned against a 'false sense of security', saying most European countries were still vulnerable.
'Vaccines are essential, but as of now, they are not sufficient to control the pandemic,' Kluge said.
'Time and again have we seen countries reopen too fast and lose hard-earned gains,' Kluge stressed.
The WHO director also reiterated a call for an equitable distribution of vaccines to include poorer countries, citing it as a 'moral imperative' but also a means of mitigating risks.
'Unfair access to vaccines can backfire. The longer the virus lingers, the greater the risk of dangerous mutations,' Kluge said.
On Thursday, the West African state of Equatorial Guinea said China had donated 100,000 doses of its Sinopharm jab to help it launch a vaccination campaign.
The vaccines were ceremonially handed over at Malabo airport on Wednesday to Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the presidency said.
As Ukraine struggles to launch its own immunisation campaign, its government has banned vaccines produced in bitter rival Russia.
A resolution posted on the government's website Wednesday banned the registration of vaccines from 'aggressor states', a designation Ukraine has applied to Russia since 2015.
Ukraine's pro-Western leadership has repeatedly rejected calls from pro-Moscow politicians to approve Russia's Sputnik V jab.
Ukraine has been fighting separatists backed by Russia in its Donetsk and Lugansk regions since 2014 following Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
- 2.3 million dead -
The coronavirus has infected more than 107 million people and killed at least 2.3 million since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to an AFP tally.
And with infection numbers continuing to rise, governments are extending restrictions.
In Ireland, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said the current lockdown was set to be extended until April.
'Certainly we are looking at a continuation of high levels of restrictions until the Easter period,' Martin told state broadcaster RTE.
In Germany, too, the government agreed Wednesday to continue a partial lockdown until at least March 7, even as Germans grow increasingly weary of the tough restrictions.
With most Europeans still living under various curbs on their activities, the EU slashed its growth forecast for 2021, but Brussels said that a powerful rebound was near.
'We remain in the painful grip of the pandemic, its social and economic consequences all too evident,' the EU's Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said.
'Yet there is, at last, light at the end of the tunnel,' he said.